Hemp Bill Still Alive, May Get Vote Wednesday

Mar 4, 2013

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A proposal that could open the door to industrial hemp farming in Kentucky is scheduled for a vote in a House committee on Wednesday.

House Agriculture and Small Business Committee Chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said Monday that he expects the measure to pass his committee and that he intends to vote for it himself.

The proposal, which the House wanted to rewrite, received a hearing but no vote last week. Since then, hemp supporters ratcheted up political pressure.

McKee had proposed rewriting the legislation, which is intended to put Kentucky is position to quickly license hemp growers if ever the federal government lifts restrictions on growing it.

"I've always been for the bill," McKee said Monday. "We just wanted to make it a little better."

McKee had proposed revamping the bill to allow a university-led study of hemp, which thrived in Kentucky generations ago before the federal government classified it as a controlled substance. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer opposed the rewrite, saying Kentucky needs to set up a regulatory system ahead of any potential federal action to legalize hemp production.

The measure, which has already passed the Senate, faces an uncertain future even if it gets out of the agriculture committee. House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he doesn't know if it will be called for a floor vote.

"I'm not for the bill," Stumbo said Monday.

State police and other law enforcement agencies have raised concerns about hemp fields being used to camouflage marijuana, which has identical leaves.

"That's still a concern for all of us," McKee said.

Law enforcement officials have told lawmakers that hemp and marijuana are not distinguishable without lab tests. Hemp supporters argue that marijuana growers would avoid hemp fields because cross-pollination could weaken the potency of pot. Opponents said that cross-pollination could just as easily strengthen the potency of hemp.

"As a House committee we don't want to stand in the way of creating the thousands and thousands of jobs that the agriculture commissioner has been talking about," McKee said. "If there's a viable crop for our farmers, then the House agriculture committee wants to promote that."

Comer insists that hemp could be an economic boon for Kentucky. Besides creating another crop for the state's farmers, Comer said hemp could lead to manufacturing jobs in processing plants that could produce products ranging from paper to cosmetics.